The best-ever music in a musical?

‘Finian’s Rainbow’ stands out at a time when hit musicals tend to lack memorable songs

The best-ever music in a musical?What have Broadway musicals been missing? Great songs. Finian’s Rainbow, the 1947 musical whose first-ever Broadway revival opened Oct. 29, was once considered too dated to produce: the script, about a leprechaun and a pot of gold in a fictional U.S. state called “Missitucky,” is a strange combination of political satire and whimsy. But the revival, based on a popular concert performance, is getting some of the strongest reviews of any musical this season. And the main thing critics are singling out is the score, by lyricist-librettist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg (The Wizard of Oz) and composer Burton Lane. It may be the best set of songs ever written for a Broadway musical: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more musically satisfying Broadway show,” marvelled Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. At a time when hit musicals have few memorable songs—successes like Avenue Q, Spamalot and The Drowsy Chaperone are filled with parody songs that aren’t always supposed to be interesting on their own—it’s no wonder that audiences may be ready to rediscover the pleasures of what lyricist-librettist Michael Colby (Charlotte Sweet) describes to Maclean’s as “a score where every song is a gem.”

Though one Finian song (How Are Things In Glocca Morra?) became a pop hit, most of the score hasn’t become as familiar as other Broadway classics. Which may be why theatregoers are delighting in the songs as if they’re new; they haven’t been overexposed. But it’s also because Harburg and Lane filled the score with what Harburg’s son Ernie, author of the book Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz?, calls “a variety of styles unlike any other Broadway show. There’s gospel, there’s classical, there’s Irish gavotte.”

Broadway musicals aren’t known for unexpected pleasures, but every song in Finian does something unexpected. The first song is a mixture of blues, folk music and Broadway showstopper, while the climactic number, When I’m Not Near The Girl I Love, sung by a leprechaun who’s turned into a horny, girl-chasing human, combines a luscious waltz tune with a comedic lyric full of wordplay and strange rhymes like “fickle” and “partickle.” The big ballad, Old Devil Moon, is unusually sexy and passionate for a Broadway love song. Lane’s tunes have unusual structures while being accessible and hummable, and Harburg’s lyrics combine satire with realistic images: “My feet want to dance in the sun / My head wants to rest in the shade / The Lord says ‘Go out and have fun’ / But the landlord says ‘Your rent ain’t paid!’ ”

For many years, the only thing standing in the way of a Finian revival was the script, by Harburg and Fred Saidy. Its jokes about consumerism are often very specific to the late ’40s. And producers were wary of a major plot point about a racist senator who is magically transformed into a black man; both the original production and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1968 film version used a white actor in blackface. The revival has gone a long way toward fixing these problems: it plays up the fact that the satire is newly relevant during the recession—especially the song That Great Come-And-Get-It-Day, a hymn to buying products you can’t afford—and it uses two actors, one white and one black, to play the senator. Still, critics have expressed reservations about the story, with Teachout criticizing its “whimsy-whamsy and smug sanctimony.” The songs, the dancing, and the cast (headed by Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Baldwin as the romantic leads) distract the audience from a script that still has weak spots.

The fact that Finian concentrates on the songs at the expense of the book might actually be a relief to audiences in an era when musicals seem to be strong in every department except songs. Finian has a minimalist set, some cuts in the script, and features what Colby calls “no camping, no plugging in ‘stars’ to ensure box office.” Many musicals distract us from weak songs; Finian wants to focus attention on Lane’s tunes and Harburg’s lines, like: “And when all your neighbours are upper-class / You won’t know your Joneses from your Astors.”

A revival of another classic, Bye Bye Birdie, opened shortly before Finian did, to a tepid reception. That production adds a song that wasn’t in the stage version, re-orchestrates the music, and is built around a TV star, John Stamos. Finian takes the opposite approach, trusting the material. If the reviews translate into box office, it may prove musicals don’t need lavish sets or even a problem-free book. They just need to be, well, musical.

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